Thomas D. Elias: Voters detest new taxes? Not always
From the moment results of the May 19 special state election were announced, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other powerful California officials have maintained the vote was an absolute rejection of any new taxes.
"The voters wanted to send a very clear message," Schwarzenegger said. "They said, 'Don't come to us with these complex issues, do the job yourself, live within your means, get rid of the waste and inefficiencies and don't raise our taxes.' I have heard that message loud and clear. And I always respect the will of the people."
But what if no-new-taxes wasn't really the message voters meant to send when they nixed five of the six propositions put before them by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature?
The governor, after all, polled no voters on what they intended in rejecting his proposal for two additional years of expanded sales, income and car taxes, combined with a plan letting him and the lawmakers spend as they wished almost $6 billion the voters had previously earmarked for specific uses like schools and mental health.
In fact, most election results are political Rohrsharch tests, rather like blobs of ink in which everyone sees something different.
There is plenty of evidence this time that voters weren't saying no to extended taxes so much as they emphatically rejected an attempted deception by public officials. Public polls turned harshly against the propositions only after it became widely known that the ballot arguments for and against Proposition 1A, the tax extension measure, didn't bother to mention the tax extensions.
Pollster Mark Baldassare, whose surveys for the Public Policy Institute of California have been consistently accurate for many years, notes that his recent research shows "a plurality of Californians saying they favor a mix of tax increases and spending cuts" to solve the state's budget woes.
And Mark DiCamillo, director of the usually accurate Field Poll, says his surveys show voters were angered by the misleading ballot arguments.
Unlike Schwarzenegger, Baldassare and DeCamillo actually quizzed voters about their motives, while the governor relies purely on instinct and guesswork as he determines vital public policies.
There's also convincing evidence voters will tax themselves when they believe the money will go to causes they like and when they think officialdom has been honest with them.
This evidence lies in the results of local elections since the threshold of approval for school construction bonds dropped from two-thirds to 55 percent early in this decade.
More than two-thirds of such proposals have won approval in this decade, even though voters knew the bonds would increase rents or property taxes. This performance has been consistent in all parts of the state. In hundreds of local elections, voters knew what they'd be getting for their money and believed the local school board members backing the proposals.
Just as striking are the results of several recent local votes on parcel taxes to help fund school districts. Many districts shy away from seeking property tax increases to fund their operations, knowing much of the money would be diverted to other districts around the state under terms of the 1970s-era Serrano v. Priest court decision. By contrast, all parcel tax money stays home. But these levies require a two-thirds majority for passage.
So far this year, 10 such local proposals have succeeded in places as geographically varied as Piedmont in the East San Francisco Bay area and the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino. Only five parcel tax plans have failed.
Parcel taxes force all property owners to pay an identical amount each year, regardless of the size or value of the property. They are the least fair of all taxes, because they take the same amount from rich and poor, commercial and residential properties. So when they win, it's a sign of great public support for local schools. The amounts approved this year vary from a $180 per parcel yearly addition to an existing levy to $2,000 per parcel in new taxes approved in well-to-do Piedmont.
How can Schwarzenegger argue that Californians are absolutely opposed to any new tax when they're passing two-thirds of the most regressive tax plans ever proposed?
There's no logic to what he says, only a form of panic and a great desire to avoid taking any responsibility for the state's fiscal condition.
The evidence of both school bond elections and parcel tax votes clearly shows that when Californians believe institutions they love and value are in real need, they will reach for their wallets even in the worst of economic times. But when they feel deceived and they're unsure how their money will be spent, they say no.
Which means the message of May 19 was not no-new-taxes, but something more like this: "Tell us the truth and be honest about what you'll do with our money. Then we might give you some."
Thomas D. Elias writes on California politics and other issues. His column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. E-mail him at email@example.com.